President Obama’s speech in El Paso on May 10 put the immigration debate back on the table. In reaffirming his commitment to comprehensive immigration reform, he attempted to reframe a debate that has been dominated by a focus on security.
The president began by rightly noting the primary motivation for the presence of some 11 million undocumented immigrants in the country.
“…The overwhelming majority of these folks are just trying to earn a living and provide for their families”. Obama referred to comprehensive immigration reform as “an economic imperative”, essential to eliminating an underground labor economy and protecting middle-class salaries.
Although Obama’s attempt to reframe the debate moved discussion back into economics, he left out any structural explanation of what pushes migration in a globalized world. He portrayed U.S. companies that employ undocumented labor as rogue rule-breakers, and simultaneously exalted migrants as valuable assets while still describing them as global interlopers.
Even as he sought to rescue the debate from the false obsession on border controls, he did not once discuss the root causes of immigration.
What are the conditions that drive thousands of people a year to assume the risks of migrating to the United States to “provide for their families”? How can development policies be coordinated, in both sending and host countries, to build employment options for people at home?
The Development Disconnect
As both the US and Mexico turn political attention to the 2012 presidential campaigns, the role of development in migration seems farther from the agenda than ever. Experts from Mexico and the United States recently met to figure out how to change that. Brought together under the auspices of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, a binational group of policy analysts, migrant leaders, non-governmental organizations, farmer and labor organizations and foundations gathered to analyze what many see as a crisis and explore options and reforms. Some 60 percent of undocumented workers now in the U.S. are Mexican, so the U.S.-Mexican relationship offers an excellent place to start in understanding the opportunities and obstacles and exploring alternatives.
The initial premise seems self-evident: Migration cannot be viewed as a system divorced from broader issues of regional labor markets, development and economic policies. But despite being obvious, the reality is that in public policy and discourse it is routinely and systematically separated from its roots in what Jonathan Fox of the University of California at Santa Cruz referred to as the “persistent disconnect between the migration agenda and a development agenda that goes beyond local infrastructure.”
When you add in the disconnects between sending and receiving nations; federal, state and municipal government; and national security and human rights priorities, it’s no wonder that the immigration debate has become mired in half-truths and knee-jerk politicking.
U.S.-Mexican migration is a classic example of how the obvious can be obfuscated. Even when politicians pay lip service to poverty and development issues as push factors, the rhetoric has not translated into coherent public policy–especially in the crucial area of employment–within Mexico and much less within the binational relationship.
Rodolfo Zamora of the University of Zacatecas noted that the lack of links between development and immigration is not an accident or an oversight. Both U.S. and Mexican governments ignore the economic causes of migration—among them, the regional integration model, concentration of wealth and dual labor markets. This is because they benefit powerful interests that then deflect blame by criminalizing the migrating workers caught up in the dynamic they created. The current system reinforces power structures. It means that overcoming these biased approaches is a major political and organizing challenge that requires empowering actors in society, particularly migrants themselves.
One of the major tasks to get policy back on track is to figure out how to mainstream discussions on the links between development and migration, among media, the public and policymakers. As demonstrated in Obama’s reframing speech, in the United States the question of what leads people to migrate remains taboo in the immigration debate. Even though a consensus exists on the need for an integral approach to migration, the experts gathered in Mexico City recognized serious obstacles to breaking through the taboo and confronting the complexities of a broadened debate that includes development issues.
Taking binational responsibility for the reasons behind a migrant’s decision implies humanizing an important social actor who has been relegated to the inhuman status of “illegal” within the security framework. It reveals the bureaucratic walls built between development and migration policy that must be broken down to construct lasting solutions. Finally, it opens up areas of civil society involvement on both sides of the border that combine grassroots initiatives with policy reform efforts.
The disconnect between migration and development didn’t always exist. Fox pointed out promoters of regional economic integration under the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) argued that it would directly lead to a decrease in migratory pressures. When that proved false, the resulting crisis did not lead to a reassessment of the links between economic policy and migration. With labor market integration left out of the model and no compensatory mechanisms built in, increased migratory pressures based on demand for undocumented labor in the U.S. and lack of employment in Mexico have been effectively ignored by both governments.
Clemente Ruiz Duran of the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM) described the crisis that has resulted. The Mexican economy has grown at an average rate of merely 2.7 percent since NAFTA, with marked instability and dependence on the U.S. economy. A growing working population combined with low job generation has led to high unemployment, underemployment and eroding working conditions. The economy is characterized by the growth of the informal sector (29% of jobs), low wages, inequality, speculation and a lack of productive investment in the country. Ruiz summed up the situation: Mexico has developed an economy “that grows little, invests little and punishes wages.”
The task of predicting and managing regional labor flows normally depends on an analysis of supply and demand. Raul Hinojosa of the University of California at Los Angeles pointed out that U.S. immigration policy generates demand for low-wage migrant labor that lacks basic protections and rights. Hinojosa stated that migrants earn 15-20% less than native workers, creating an artificially high demand in the U.S., while at the same time denying responsibility for legally integrating necessary foreign labor.
The elevated cost of sending remittances creates another barrier to using the full potential of migrant earnings to contribute to development goals. These added costs generate a series of problems for the home country including inflation, productivity decline, inequality and dependence on migration.
Government policies that do not address these problems aggravate them. Fox referred to recent research that shows how misplaced rural spending in Mexico contributes to out-migration. The first problem is that rural policies do not place a priority on employment and many current policies finance activities that create few jobs and threaten existing jobs. Since NAFTA, rural employment has dropped from 10.7 million in 1991 to 8.6 million in 2007.
At the same time, the government doubled spending in the sector between 2000 and 2009. Much of the public budget goes to northern states where industrial agriculture can compete more efficiently on the global market and benefits large agricultural companies with little employment. Small-scale production in the south, which employs a large part of the farming population, has been virtually abandoned in public policy except in cash transfer programs. U.S. subsidized imports also led to massive job displacement
In the relationship between education and migration, there seem to be more questions than answers. Silvia Giorguli of the Colegio de Mexico explained that schooling has increased in Mexico at the lower levels, but shows major gaps between regions and has still not reached universal coverage. In zones of high expulsion, the impact of migration seems to be mixed. On the one hand, since 40% migrate before the age of 20, many leave the educational system to seek jobs in the U.S. On the other hand, some families use remittances to finance education. Public policy should address the pressures to leave school caused by migration in these areas and the challenges to integrate returning youth into the educational system.
Other questions pertain to the lack of linkage between school curriculum and employment, although several participants noted that the structure of the U.S. migrant labor market does not guarantee that higher education leads to better jobs for Mexicans.
Marc Rosenblum of the Migration Policy Institute analyzed U.S. policy on development and migration, characterized by what he called a complete lack of dialogue between the agencies and actors in involved in immigration policy and development/aid policy. The logic and the institutional structures of the two areas differ enormously, leading to an inability to understand shared problems and goals, let alone coordinate policies.
The point was seconded by Oscar Chacon, director of the National Alliance of Latino and Caribbean Communities (NALACC), who noted that in the U.S. Congress the committees on development and migration issues rarely interact.
He added that from the point of view of migrant organizations, to talk about development in either sending or receiving countries is to talk of health, education, identities and democracy. Presenting an integrated set of issues to the public is often rejected as too complicated. Another challenge in linking development and migration is to communicate effectively. Although the integral approach involves broadening the scope of issues, it must be presented clearly as the only real way to understand the dynamics and develop lasting, just and effective measures.
Remittances and Beyond Remittances
To advance debate into areas where progress can be shown and made, many of the “big questions”—What is meant by development? Does Mexico have a national development plan? What are the structural and political limitations to linking migration and development?—were set aside to dive into evaluations of past experience and proposals regarding specific strategies.
A huge body of literature has been devoted to the billions of dollars in remittances generated by the global migration boom, especially between the United States and Mexico. Debates about the use of remittances and their potential use for development in communities of origin often focus on how they fit into family economic strategies, whether they can be harnessed effectively for public purposes, the costs of transmission and the role of financial services.
Mexico’s 3×1 program where federal, state and municipal governments match migrant remittances to carry out public works projects, provides over a decade of experience to evaluate the potential for using remittances in development. As Xochitl Bada pointed out, however, the results are mixed. Most projects center on building local infrastructure, leading to few long-term job opportunities. The program has been successful in implementing projects in some communities outside the municipal seat that traditionally receive little public funding. But the program still has problems channeling funds to communities with the highest poverty and expulsion rates and 59% of projects are concentrated in only three states: Zacatecas, Michoacán and Jalisco. Bada recommended that the program be reoriented to include more initiatives and participation from Mexican communities, to streamline procedures and to modify the rules of application for greater accountability and transparency.
The goal of creating strong links between remittances and development has shown limited advances, as productive projects constitute only 3.5% of the projects approved and around half fail in the marketing phase. Growth areas for the program should include investment in human capital by offering scholarships and increased educational opportunities and productive projects that focus on the domestic market.
Raul Hinojosa and Paule Cruz described work on reducing the costs of sending remittances and the potential for development implied in reduced costs and increased use of financial services. The North American Integration and Development Center at UCLA has been mapping transnational corridors to study the flow of remittances. In Mexico, one of the largest obstacles is the lack of reliable information.
The potential of new technologies such as mobile phone transfers can reduce costs of sending remittances up to 75%. These technologies can be coupled with the creation of community credit unions or the use of stores or post offices where there are no banks. They potentially offer options to the poor that are usually only available to the wealthy. The City of Oakland developed a project that offers a debit card to migrants that can be used to send remittances.
Along the same lines, Isabel Cruz of the Mexican Association of Social Sector Credit Unions (AMUCSS) stated, “We cannot influence development if there isn’t widespread access to financial services.” She asserted that remittances dedicated to family needs can serve development purposes, if they are converted into migrant savings through access to community banks and credit unions. Accessible savings mechanisms for rural communities reduce vulnerability and create virtuous circles of savings and reinvestment in the community. The public policy agenda must include the creation of microbanks and community banks, and the elimination of barriers in the transnational financial system.
Migrants as Agents of Change
The lack of trained leadership and of national and regional development plans has hindered progress on linking migration and development and migration in policy, according to Chacon. To become more effective, migrant organizations must make alliances with other sectors of Mexican civil society and be recognized as social actors. Chacon lamented that Mexico and other countries frequently view their migrants in the United States as an addendum to the agenda of the Foreign Affairs Ministry. This means that they may receive specialized support programs or services but are not seen as full citizens or political and economic actors.
Zamora gave a rundown of international efforts to advance the development and migration debate. To date the United Nations has sponsored four Global Forums on Migration and Development, four Social Forums on Migration have been held and the International Network on Migration and Development has been established. Last year the meeting of the People’s Global Action on Migration, Development and Human Rights was held alongside the UN forum in Mexico. All these experiences have helped to link migrant organizations strengthen migrant voices in policy debates and actions, and share ideas and tactics on development in communities of origin. Nonetheless, the issues remain somewhat marginalized in the migration debate, with gaps between organizing processes in host countries and home countries.
To strengthen those processes, migrant organizations have worked to open up debate and assure that the progress made in international forums filters down to the grassroots. For example, after the Global People’s Action and the Global Forum of 2010, NALACC organized public events in Chicago and other cities to publicize the and build awareness of the links between migration and development.
In Mexico, the lack of public policy in development policy with a focus on rights holds back efforts to consolidate linkages between development and migration. Often times, Congress claims it doesn’t have the resources to support development measures in sending communities but a close look at the budget shows that the real problem is skewed priorities, waste and corruption. Zamora suggests that a possible solution would be to establish mechanisms for participatory budgeting like in Brazil. Again, building democracy in general emerges as a part of the migration and development agenda.
Efraín Jiménez, migrant leader from Zacatecas in the U.S. noted that, “There will be no development unless we have someone to fight for it, we have to do it ourselves.” He pointed to the need for strong and organized communities and a permanent battle against corruption. Although academics have promoted the linkages, they have little influence in government and migrants lack representation. The Zacatecan Federation has worked to develop projects, identify needed legal reforms and modify existing programs. They are also working for immigration reform in the United States. “ Latin Americans are a large population but we need to develop strong voices to call for new development strategies and not the unfair free trade agreements.”
Jorge Romero of the International Network on Migration and Development started with the question of what an integral development should look like. Although organizations have identified the right focus in linking development and migration through an integral framework, they lack focus on the tasks at hand, he said. There’s also a lack of clarity on how to link the development and migration debate with urgent human rights issues. Within official forums, the issues continue to be fragmented. Nonetheless there have been important gains in migrants taking their rightful place as key actors on the national and international level.
The relationship between migrants and communities of origin shares a goal beyond creating better living and working conditions back home. That is the defense of the right to remain. Although international migration has both costs and benefits, what is unquestionable is that forced migration violates basic human rights.
Although the two are certainly not mutually exclusive a tension exists within the development and migration debate over whether it’s more effective to build grassroots projects or to pressure governments for changes. Ivan Polanco of the National Association of Rural Commercialization Enterprises (ANEC) placed the responsibility for the lack of development and employment firmly with the state. He criticized the fact that in Mexico migrants send money back to poor families while the wealthy transfer money abroad in investments and foreign bank accounts. “The poor are generating development out of their wages, and the rich are taking capital out of the country and absorbing government subsidies,” he said. Chacon added that government policies favor an irresponsible economic elite in the U.S. as well.
Polanco posits that the inverted priorities of the state indicate the need for a new national pact, and not just tweaks to the old model. The Food Sovereignty Law presented to Congress seeks to reorient policies to encourage food production for local markets, for example. Other policy changes should focus on supporting small and medium producers, with special emphasis on women, youth and indigenous peoples.
It would be impossible to sum up in a neat package the wide range of recommendations, concepts, experiences and demands that fall under the rubric of migration and development. Moreover, they sometimes present contradictions or are at a very initial stage of elaboration. Even “visualizing the agenda and the paths to get there”, as suggested by Chacon, may still be a ways off. But in recounting part of the discussion, he affirmed that the common ground is agreement that migration is central to development and vice versa and that migrants must play an active role on all policy levels.
Gaspar Salgado-Rivera of the Binational Front of Indigenous Organizations (FIOB) explained that migrant organizations in the United States have proposed the formation of a large network to leverage political influence and define agendas. Among the focuses are the role of public policy, transparency and human rights.
Development usually is and should be the responsibility of governments. Creating jobs should be the natural outcome of a healthy economy. The Mexican economy cannot be counted in that class. The World Bank recently stated, “Mexico is a star country in the area of macroeconomics but the big mystery of Mexico is why it doesn’t manage to generate more growth.” Why it doesn’t generate jobs must be an even bigger “mystery” to the World Bank. The dialogue on development and migration insists that the links can and must be understood, and policies changed.
Pressure is building on both sides of the border for those changes. How can binational efforts contribute to solving the problems? Polanco said, “We ask our colleagues in the US to talk about what its like for us here. We want to come together to demand the renegotiation of NAFTA.”
That’s just an example of the areas for cooperation. As North America becomes the world’s most integrated region, it’s not acceptable to delink issues as critically linked as migration and development. The loose coalition of people working on migration and development has built up an impressive array of skills, ideas and resources. Most of that has been done from the bottom up, despite rather than through government programs. Migrants have had to recreate communities, fight to maintain cultural identity and economic solvency. The initiative to apply these skills to development in their home country of Mexico has only just begun.
Laura Carlsen is director of the Americas Program of the Center for International Policy in Mexico City at www.americas.org.